In her Wall Street Journal essay “The Questionable Link between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease,” Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, says that our nation’s love affair with vegetable oils is the consequence of the advice that we’ve received on lowering our consumption of saturated fats.
It will probably surprise some consumers to know that oils, animal or vegetable, have not been around but a little over 100 years as a food stuff. Before that, they were used for non-food purposes such as making soaps, candles, waxes, lubricants, and fuels. It was not until cottonseed oils were developed in the southern United States that they entered our food resources.
The first application was a product called compound lard, a mixture of cottonseed oil and beef fat, marketed by Swift & Co. in 1893. They called the combination Cottonsuet. Then the oil began making its way into other fat products in order to save the manufacturers money. Then, as now, vegetable oils were less expensive to manufacture than animal-derived fats.
Another interesting side note about vegetable oils is that they are not made from raw vegetables at all, but from pressing seeds. These include cottonseeds, rapeseeds, safflower seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, corn, and soybeans. So how did this not very natural dietary product become the staple of Western diet that it is today?
As Teicholz explained to JuJu Chang on ABC’s Nightline, it was the heart disease crisis of the 1950s that moved saturated fats into the crosshairs of one particular biologist and pathologist from the University of Minnesota, Ancel Benjamin Keys. He theorized that the root cause of the spike in heart attacks was the country’s use of saturated fats. Despite shaky evidence, he convinced the American Heart Association to issue a warning against it in their first ever dietary guidelines in 1961.
As part of these guidelines, vegetable oils, polyunsaturated fats, were the suggested alternative. It helped that a major manufacturer of Crisco, Proctor & Gamble, financially supported the American Heart Association in its efforts. Crisco had been introduced in 1911 as the first vegetable-based fat that housewives accepted as a household name. By the time the guidelines were released, margarine and vegetable oils were also widely available.
In spite of the recommendations to substitute animal fats with vegetable oils, research was finding that a diet higher in vegetable oils was not without its risks. Higher incidences of cancer and gallstones were seen with the new products. However, the recommendation to use them went full steam ahead for the next fifty years. Through the 1980s, the National Institutes of Health worked with researchers to discover why these adverse reports kept surfacing, but no results and, more importantly, no public warnings were publicized.
In the bestselling book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz, she exposes the poor research that led to the recommendation to increase consumption of vegetable oil. She also follows vegetable oil’s slippery history of increased use by American consumers.